Oregon Trail: How three Minnesotans forged its path

It's one of the most popular educational games of all time

With no monitor, the original version of Oregon Trail was played by answering prompts that printed out on a roll of paper. At 10 characters per second, the teletype spat out, "How much do you want to spend on your oxen team?" or, "Do you want to eat (1) poorly (2) moderately or (3) well?" Students typed in the numerical responses, then the program chugged through a few basic formulas and spat out the next prompt along with a status update.

"Bad illness—medicine used," it might say. "Do you want to (1) hunt or (2) continue?"

Hunting required the greatest stretch of the user's imagination. Instead of a point-and-shoot game, the teletype wrote back, "Type BANG."

If the user typed it in accurately and quickly enough, the hunter bagged his quarry.

"Nice shot!" the program answered. "Right through the neck—Feast tonight!!!"

Once the players reached the Willamette Valley, Heinemann programmed a little bell inside the teletype to ring.

"I tried to be as clever as I could with the technology," he says.

In the scramble to finish coding in time, no one stopped to realize that they'd just invented one of the first simulation computer games.

Oregon Trail was played for the first time in Rawitsch's history class on December 3, 1971. He wheeled the school's machine into the classroom and turned it on as the class watched curiously. He divided them into teams and handed out paper maps to follow along.

There were a few obvious problems right away. With only one teletype, each group had to wait up to half an hour for its turn.

It didn't take long for the kids to poke holes in the hastily assembled code. They could enter negative amounts of money and actually add to their coffers. Sometimes they were told the date was October 0, 1848.

Eventually other teachers would protest that the mention of "Indians" wasn't politically correct.

But on the first day, none of that mattered to Rawitsch.

"They loved it," he remembers. "The person who was good at the map kept track of where they were, the person who was good at math kept track of the money. They formed a little collaborative."

Depending on the students' choices, each game came out a little differently. And though few made it to the end alive, rather than quit, the kids wanted to try again.

The trio of student teachers loaded the program onto the schools' so-called "timesharing" system, a library of programs that were accessible from teletypes within the Minneapolis school district. Dillenberger started letting his math students at Bryant try it, and soon kids were lined up six or seven deep outside the janitor's closet. They began arriving early to play and staying until teachers kicked them out.

"We knew there was something special about it," says Dillenberger.

When the semester ended, however, Rawitsch went in and deleted the program. Oregon Trail went dark. He printed out the code—hundreds and hundreds of lines of it on a long roll of yellow computer paper—rolled it up, and took it home.

It would be years before any student traveled the Oregon Trail again.

"I really didn't have an idea of how something more could be done with it."

  

BEFORE DON RAWITSCH had even arrived at Carleton, Dale LaFrenz was planning the infrastructure that would eventually make Oregon Trail a household name.

In the 1960s, Minnesota was a Midwestern Silicon Valley. Several early computer companies set up shop here—IBM, UNIVAC, Honeywell, and Control Data Corporation. In the days before computer stores, Minnesota had ample access to hardware manufacturers.

LaFrenz, a math teacher at a high school that was run by the University of Minnesota, thought that computers belonged in classrooms. He remembers it as a surprisingly easy sell.

"We had a tremendous amount of computer-literate people working in the industry," he remembers. "Everyone on the school boards knew it was the right thing to do. We were gung-ho computers."

LaFrenz and a handful of other educators helped found a body called Total Information for Education Systems. Through TIES, and with federal grant money, schools in 20 districts were able to purchase a teletype.

While TIES was flourishing, grumblings of discontent echoed from outside the metro area.

"We had an out-state-dominated Legislature," says LaFrenz. "They said, 'You guys in the metro area are hogging it.'"

Under that legislative pressure and in a time when the state was flush with cash, a statewide body called the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium was conceptualized.

"It is proposed that MECC provide computing facilities and support staff to serve the needs defined by education, and available equally to all students and educational institutions in Minnesota on a real cost basis," reads the original proposal.

MECC was born in 1973. It included representatives from every level of education and included 435 school districts.

While MECC was still in its formative stages, LaFrenz received a call from an old friend—a mathematics professor at Carleton.

"You got any job you could give to a conscientious objector?" the professor asked.

LaFrenz agreed to meet the young man. His name was Don Rawitsch.

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20 comments
mangostarr
mangostarr

This was such a great article. I needed it for a college project and it answered all my questions

inventions for kids
inventions for kids

Plato was one of the earliest philosophers to provide a detailed discussion of ideas. He considered the concept of idea in the realm of metaphysics and its implications for epistemology

Bradman Jack
Bradman Jack

Excellent article! I loved the article, and I congratulate Jessica Lussenhop on accomplishing such a accomplished job! I hope that the readers of City Pages adore the added data that I have provided!

link wheel creation

Michael Corey
Michael Corey

There is a lesson that many people are missing from this: only programmers are qualified to lead software development teams, departments and companies. And by that, I mean real coders, not a manager who took a programming class one time years ago.

Jen
Jen

This was just great reading. Thanks.

...and I can attest that even around 2001, with all the new tech out there, when my family gave the young kids across the street our old computer and floppy disks they were enthralled as my brother and I were with Oregon and Carmen. That they had free reign with that old machine probably helped, but I also think good educational techniques just have a lasting power. Damn shame when you take profits over people ( of course, it'll often come back to haunt ya)

Philip Bouchard
Philip Bouchard

Excellent article! I am impressed by the research that went into it. You have covered a great deal of the history of The Oregon Trail. However, there is one huge gap in the article. Out of the many iterations of the product, arguably the greatest leap forward was the 1985 Apple II version. This is the version that most people refer to when they say “the Apple II version”. The illustrations in the article are from the 1985 version, not the original 1979 Apple version. Likewise, the link that says “Play the Apple II version online” goes to the 1985 game.

The original 1979 Apple II game, simply called “OREGON”, was a faithful translation of the original timeshare version, without any major augmentation, other than the addition of a few black-and-white outline graphics. There were a few key innovations, such as using the space bar to shoot at deer, rather than typing “BANG”. The game was tiny, just one of several small games that MECC included on disks with names like Social Studies Volume 3 and Elementary Volume 6 – sold only to schools, not consumers. Throughout the early 1980s OREGON was MECC’s most famous product.

By 1984 OREGON has become an embarrassment because it was so technologically outdated. I was asked to lead the design effort to create a completely new version designed primarily for the home market, for release in 1985. One of my first decisions was to expand the game from a 10-minute activity to a 45-minute activity. This required a complete rethinking of the structure and content of the game. I opted for a landmark-based game cycle, where the simulation runs continuously and automatically between two consecutive landmarks, stopping automatically at the next landmark for the player to take action. However, the player can stop between landmarks to hunt, change food rations, or take other critical measures. The 1985 version includes many, many other innovations that were not present in the 1979 game, greatly adding to the cross-gender appeal and re-playability of the game. And of course, the 1985 game includes beautiful color graphics and cute animation – not present in the 1979 version.

Under the hood, one of the key innovations for 1985 was the inclusion of a complex simulation model based on a set of simultaneous difference equations. These equations tracked and linked such key factors as food supply, health, weather, travel progress, river depth, and so on. These factors were intricately intertwined by the mathematical equations. Furthermore, factors such as the weather and the availability of game animals were based on models that incorporate real-world data – while considering the current month in the game and your current geographical location on the trail.

As with all versions of the Oregon Trail, it was the work of a full team, not just a lead designer, that made it happen. In addition to my role as the lead designer, Charolyn Kapplinger was the lead artist, and John Krenz was the lead Applesoft programmer. Bill Way designed the animation. Roger Shimada programmed the hunting game. Shirley Keran provided a great deal of historical research. And several other people also played key roles in the creation of the product.

As a side note, at about the same time that I served as the lead designer on The Oregon Trail, I also designed Number Munchers and Word Munchers, both of which were original concepts, rather than iterations of existing products.

In summary, I loved the article, and I congratulate Jessica Lussenhop on doing such a fine job! I hope that the readers of City Pages enjoy the additional details that I have provided!

- Philip Bouchard

Jonathan Browne
Jonathan Browne

It is quite sad how the corporate profiteering jackasses with no vision truly destroyed educational gaming while also managing to lose their own shirts.

The genre still has not recovered.

Games for Children
Games for Children

Thanks, good article. This article gives very important information .its really amazing article.

Evadman
Evadman

I would have finished the article, but I died of dysentery on page 3 :(

Darren Josephson
Darren Josephson

Jessica Lussenhop, Great Piece!! You obviously went to great depths to research and put together this story. I commend you on the numerous sources you were able to bring into the article. The story was filled with information yet written well enough to keep me hitting the next page button. I am just wondering, from start to finish how long it took you to put together this story? Maybe you could reply back in the comments section? Just curious, thanks.

Again, great work.

m1chaelf
m1chaelf

if wikipedia is right, the anniversary isn't until December 7th

Steve A.
Steve A.

Our son was an early adopter of Oregon Trail, first at his school, Tanglen Elementary in the Hopkins School District, and then at home when we got our first computer. It spurred a real interest in American history, so much so that we ended up taking a family trip along the real Oregon Trail in Nebraska and visiting the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri. I cannot think of any other computer game that had as much impact on our children.

AutumnBanter
AutumnBanter

I am 33 years old and Oregon Trail is one of the strongest memories I have of elementary school. I clearly remember sitting in computer class with my friends, after learning how to use the mouse on the Apple II E and playing Oregon Trail with amazement.

The game is legendary and I know of many adults who for years searched for the original version to play on modern computers. Thank you for this article - it's wonderful to learn about the men responsible for creating our first educational game. I still think it beats out most of today's computer and video games!!

Mattack
Mattack

Umm, a //e *can* have a mouse (with an additional mouse card), but I very very strongly suspect you're actually thinking about a joystick. (I think later versions use a joystick for the deer hunting scene).

Casey Allen
Casey Allen

Does anybody know if any of the ex-MECC execs started any other edutech companies in the Twin Cities?

Phenomenally well written story, Jessica. Easily one of the best, most well researched pieces I've read in years.

SStaff
SStaff

First of all, I agree with the comment "get rid of the twitter junk, it's just pushing out the real comments."

Great article. A real lesson in how the real world goes. I currently work with Paul Dillenberger and he is a very gifted teacher. He is retiring and I look forward to seeing him (hopefully) subbing at the school next year.

Tom King
Tom King

What a powerful learning tool these pioneers brought to K-12 education!

You can't fool the kids, either. They love real-life, simulation-based learning tools, ones which encourage them to think, collaborate, plan, make decisions, learn from failures, and improve their higher level thinking skills. That's exactly what Oregon Trail provides.

Too bad there isn't more computer-based simulation learning like this, a form of Project-Based Learning. Not for a lack of trying though, as many other pioneers keep pushing for more hands-on, heads-on learning in K-12.

There's another set of lessons to be learned from this hallowed game for all our education critics today: beware the presence of the corporate world in running our schools! All they are concerned about is the financial bottom-line. To paraphrase the words of founder Dale LaFrenz: "They don't care whether you're talking about kids...or toilet paper...All they look at is the financials."

Many of our so-called educational leaders aren't much better. All they care about are standardized test scores, and far too many kids are being left behind, wandering far from the Learning Trail.

Oh
Oh

Good article. Growing up with those 5.25" MECC disks sitting in their pouches at school, I always wondered what happened to them. It's a shame bean counters ruined another good thing. MECC can also take credit for popularizing the "Tycoon" style games with Dinosaur Tycoon. For an educational title, that game was amazing.

side note: get rid of this Twitter junk, it's just pushing out real comments.

 
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